These versions of Love as Folly and Love the Sentinel [fig. 1] are essentially the same as the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection examples [fig. 2] [fig. 3]. The primary differences are in Love the Sentinel, where the setting is less defined (the balustrade is missing) and less luxuriant; the second tendril of roses that rises to the left in the Bruce version is replaced by a cloud bank; and no doves appear in the sky. Some minor adjustments were made between the Bruce and Simpson variants of Love as Folly, but they are less significant. The surfaces of the Simpson variants are less well preserved, giving the canvases a decidedly drier quality, with little of the sparkling brushwork and luscious impasto that must have originally enlivened them and are still apparent in the Bruce paintings. Georges Wildenstein associated the Simpson pictures with those that appeared in the 1780 sale of Leroy de Senneville, where they were described as among the artist’s “most agreeable works,” a characterization that would be hard to defend today, their state of preservation notwithstanding.
The fact that the pictures, or works like them, belonged to such an important collector as Leroy de Senneville — who also owned Fragonard’s Young Girl Reading — shows how treasured such “minor” decorative pictures were. Indeed, versions of the two compositions were owned by several of the most prominent collectors of the second half of the eighteenth century, including the marquis de Véri (who commissioned Le Verrou, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris); Ménage de Pressigny (the owner of the famous Swing in the Wallace Collection, London); Randon de Boisset; and the prince de Conti, among others. The subjects were also engraved at least twice during Fragonard’s lifetime, a further indication of their popularity.
Minor or not, these compositions and their variants typify the kind of quickly painted, small-scale decorative pictures that Fragonard frequently produced during his career. Small oval canvases depicting Cupids or amorini are abundant throughout his catalogued oeuvre, but most often in the late 1760s and early 1770s, when the painter was enjoying one of his most lucrative periods. Sometimes the figures’ attributes or attitudes have suggested allegorical associations, such as the seasons or the times of day. But it is doubtful that such paintings were intended to carry great iconographic meaning. The titles of the present pair are taken from prints made in 1777 by Jean François Janinet: L’Amour en folie and L’Amour en sentinelle, which, according to Wildenstein, were based on a pair of gouaches rather than any of the oil paintings. As with so many of Fragonard’s paintings, but especially The Progress of Love cycle with which these pictures are associated [fig. 4] [fig. 5], the subjects allude to the various faces of love — whether it makes one foolish, symbolized by the foolscap lofted by the flying Cupid in Love as Folly, or whether it conquers all, as the Cupid showing us an arrow in Love the Sentinel seems to imply. Roger Portalis, in his pioneering monograph on Fragonard, was reminded by these works of the kind of erotic-sentimental poems produced later in the century by Evariste Parny (1753 – 1814): “Seeing a rose on a bush, the butterfly alights there. Is he happy, frivolous lover? Suddenly he flies away to other games.” As if that were not enough, Fragonard also gives us doves — the birds of Venus — and rosebushes, which with their sweet scent but prickly stems offer, as does love, both pleasure and pain.
This text was previously published in Philip Conisbee et al., French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (Washington, DC, 2009), 172–176.
Collection data may have been updated since the publication of the print volume. Additional light adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.
January 1, 2009